Champion for Change: Amanda Bailly

Amanda Bailly {Amr Kokash}Photo by Amr Kokash

Amanda Bailly is an American independent filmmaker based in Beirut, Lebanon. In 2015, she followed a single Syrian mother and her two kids from Beirut to Berlin when they fled with smugglers. The film, “8 Borders, 8 Days,” premiered in April 2017 and is currently touring the country in film festivals and community screenings. She also produces documentaries and web videos for human rights organizations, primarily Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, and the United Nations. Previously, she was a producer for Human Rights Watch’s multimedia team in New York. She studied journalism and Middle East history at Boston University.

Starting on World Refugee Day, you can sign up to host a screening of her film, “8 Borders, 8 Days,” in a theater near you! Just go to www.8Borders8Days.com.

Who were your role models and mentors growing up?

I was lucky enough to have had two teachers in ninth grade who challenged me to pursue my curiosity about the world. Mr. Gnirrep and Mr. Mapstone taught a joint history and English course that allowed us to learn about culture and history around the world, often through human stories. Some of the lessons are so vivid that I remember them in detail 15 years later, especially the lesson about the Middle East. I even made my first short film in that class. Just last week, I went back to their classroom to show “8 Borders, 8 Days.” They used the film to encourage another generation of students to pursue their own passions.

What are the most rewarding aspects of your job?

As a former video producer for Human Rights Watch, and having produced stories about the refugee crisis for the last two and a half years, one might think that my job is all doom and gloom. It’s not the case. I get to witness so many small moments of humor and connection that make my job rewarding. In some of the most difficult environments, I get to see how funny, resourceful, and fierce people can be even through the hardest times of their lives.

What words of wisdom could you provide to others who are looking to get involved in refugee resettlement?

Just take that first step. On our website at www.8borders8days.com we feature eight simple, concrete ways for people to support newcomers. You can put up a sign on your lawn to let people know they are welcome. You can buy things to empower women refugees. Or you can find a resettlement agency or a volunteer-run support group in your area that works with refugees and tell them about yourself. I think people will be surprised at how many different ways they can support refugees in their communities. Newly arrived refugees need mentors and friends to show them how to navigate almost every aspect of their new environment, from the English language to job applications to public transportation. It can be as simple as donating a couch to furnish someone’s apartment. You won’t regret it!

What is your life motto?

I believe in working as hard as you possibly can toward something, and then leaving it to fate.

Where do you find inspiration?

My grandfather, Albert. My grandfather dedicated his entire life to bettering the lives of people in his community, particularly young people. He mentored youth, started programs that are still active decades later, and changed the lives of so many people. His favorite poem was “The Bridgebuilder,” by Will Allen Dromgoole, about a man who builds a bridge that will empower the next generation. I carry this spirit with me.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that up to 70 million people will be displaced by the end of 2017. How does your documentary address the need to streamline the resettlement process?

Our documentary film “8 Borders, 8 Days” shows the real consequences of closing our doors to people fleeing war and persecution, refugees. Sham and her two kids, 7 and 11, are forced to travel with smugglers to Europe because there is no safe option for resettlement available to them. They take an inflatable raft packed with 50+ people across the sea, then go by foot across large swaths of Europe because the international community has not come up with an appropriate response to resettlement to date. Our film humanizes the failures of the current process in order to educate and motivate communities around the world and find a better solution.

We read the following in your CNN article from earlier this year. How has documenting the experiences of this family in particular, and of Syrian refugees in general, impacted your life?

“I followed Sham, Yaman and Lulu on the rest of their journey from Lesbos, Greece, to Berlin with my camera, and have spent the last year and a half documenting their story. I wanted to understand the circumstances that could lead a single mother to decide that risking her children’s lives at sea was safer than staying on land.”

In following Sham and her two children across Europe, I got unfiltered access to the journey that more than a million people have taken in recent years to find refuge in Europe. I have also lived and worked in Lebanon for more than two years, where roughly 1.5 million Syrian refugees are living. What strikes me still is the lack of dignity afforded to people fleeing violence in their home country. In the film, you see people herded like cattle, without access to information, and with complete disregard for their humanity. Having witnessed this, it frames every choice my team and I make in creating the impact campaign around “8 Borders, 8 Days.” We partner with the grassroots organizations that provide the tools and the support for newly-arrived Americans to get on their feet in the most dignified way possible, and empower their communities to support their work. Sham, the single mother featured in the film said, “I just want to do something that makes me feel human.” This is my goal for every person granted refuge in the U.S., and it will drive my work for years to come.

The film very effectively captures the role of gender within the Syrian refugee crisis; was this intentional, or did it come about naturally?

While “8 Borders, 8 Days” happens to be about a major global human rights crisis, it is at heart a character-driven film. Sham, the main character, is a fierce, resourceful single mother who has taken one bold leap after the next throughout her life. The first night I saw her in action, we were on the Greek island of Lesbos, and the police were in full riot gear dealing with crowds of people, and Sham marched right up to an officer and demanded he take her and her children to a safe space away from the crowds — and he did! It was Sham’s spirit that drove this film.

I am so grateful to have met Sham, and to have had the privilege of filming her story, because I want people around the world to see her strong character in “8 Borders, 8 Days.” She defies every false stereotype of a woman from the Arab world and most people walk away from the film focused not on her status as a refugee, but on her incredible success as a woman and a mother. This is key for me, because the word “refugee” is used to describe a huge number of people, and we often lose sight of the fact that so many of these people are mothers wanting a future for their children.

What are your plans for the film?

Beginning on World Refugee Day, June 20, “8 Borders, 8 Days” will be available for individuals and groups in the U.S., and around the world, to host their own screening. Our goal is to make the film available as a tool for discussion, engagement, and action. We will do outreach in communities in the U.S. where there are either high numbers of refugees or very vocal anti-refugee sentiment in order to have concrete impact on the lives of people who have been resettled to the U.S. We want to build communities that are places of welcoming despite dangerous and bigoted actions at the national level. We have partnered with the fantastic teams at Amnesty International, Welcoming America, the Women’s March, Books Not Bombs, and Ben & Jerry’s to do this work. To host your own screening, visit our website at www.8borders8days.com. We make it very easy.

What are the specific vulnerabilities faced by women and children refugees?

Governments and humanitarian groups have identified women and children as among the most vulnerable within the refugee demographic, and they are often prioritized for resettlement because of this. When living as refugees in Syria’s neighboring countries — Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan — women have very few protections and are exploited in every way imaginable. UNICEF estimates that 4.1 million kids in these countries are out of school, and for so many of them it’s because they are working to support their families. In a situation like this, it’s no wonder Sham and so many other mothers have chosen to travel with smugglers to have a chance at a better life. During this journey the vulnerability and exploitation without any kind of protection. When you’re sleeping on the streets and not able to approach the police, you’re vulnerable to financial exploitation, and to physical and sexual violence. There needs to be a safe option available to everyone fleeing war, but particularly women and children.

What are the common misconceptions about refugees?

The term “refugee” is a term used to describe people fleeing violence or persecution in their home countries, but the people are as varied and different as people in any American city are.

While it is important that we all work hard to make our communities places of welcoming, we should remember that refugees have agency, and there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to supporting these individuals. They arrive to their new homes with various skills, work experience, education, and often some level of trauma. Local refugee support groups can assist you to better understand the needs and wishes of each individual to best help them become fully integrated members of our communities.

What can each of us do to improve the response to the movements of refugees?

Let’s all share moments of connection with refugees and immigrants. Let’s all strive to humanize this crisis by sharing the stories of the real people affected by this crisis. Whether it was a small moment shared over tea when delivering furniture to a newly-arrived family, or it’s a long-term friendship you’ve formed after years of giving English lessons, let’s all share these stories publicly and remind our fellow Americans that what unites us is greater than what divides us. Haven’t made a connection yet? Go sign up to volunteer with a refugee support group locally.

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